Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat?

Do Sodas Cause Obesity?

Should You Kick the Diet Soda Habit?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Do Sodas Cause Obesity?We are consuming ever increasing amounts of diet sodas to combat the obesity epidemic. In 1960 14% of the U.S. population was obese and 3.3% of us consumed diet sodas. By 2010 41% of the U.S. population was obese and 20% of us were consuming diet sodas. It’s pretty clear that diet sodas aren’t helping us solve the obesity epidemic, but are they actually part of the problem?

You’ve probably seen the headlines questioning whether diet sodas actually help you lose weight. In fact many of the headlines imply the diet sodas will cause you to gain weight. Two of the more sensational headlines I came across said “Think diet sodas help you lose weight? Not so, Purdue study finds”, and “Can diet sodas actually cause more weight gain than regular sodas?”

Let me start with the first headline. The Purdue publication referred to in the headline (Swithers, Trends in Endocrin. & Metab., 24: 431-441) wasn’t really a study, it was an opinion piece. That simply means that it was a review where the references were selected on the basis of the author’s opinion. That’s OK if you clearly label it as an opinion piece, which Dr. Swithers did.

Now for the second headline: There is no good evidence that diet sodas will cause you to gain more weight than regular sodas. However, a number of published studies suggest that consumption of diet sodas is associated with weight gain – sometimes just as much weight gain as consumption of the sugar sweetened sodas they replace.

Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat?

The evidence that Dr. Swithers (Trends in Endocrin. & Metab., 24: 431-441) cited was pretty impressive.

For example, the San Antonio Heart Study recorded consumption of diet sodas and regular sugar sweetened sodas in 3,862 adults (average age 44) and measured the increase in BMI (a measure of obesity) over the next 7-8 years. That study found:

  • Individuals consuming >21 diet sodas/week were almost 2-fold more likely to become overweight or obese than individuals consuming no sodas.
  • There was a clear dose response effect, with a 41% increased risk of becoming overweight or obese for each can or bottle of diet soda consumed/day.
  • The increase in weight associated with diet soda consumption was just as great for those who were at normal weight at the beginning of the study as it was for those who were obese at the beginning of the study.
  • In this study the increase in weight associated with soda consumption was greater for diet sodas than it was for regular sodas.

Another major study (Circulation, 116: 480-488, 2007) recorded diet and regular soda consumption in 6039 participants in the Framingham Heart Study (average age 53) and measured the increase in obesity (along with other parameters associated with metabolic syndrome or pre-diabetes) over the next 4 years. This study found:

  • Individuals consuming one or more sodas/day had a 48% increased risk of becoming obese compared to people with infrequent soda consumption.
  • In this study the weight increase associated with soda consumption was virtually the same for diet sodas and regular sodas.

Are These Studies True?

Diet SodaThese, and similar studies have been criticized because they are looking at associations, which do not prove cause-and-effect. For example, it’s not always clear whether the people in those studies gained weight because they were consuming diet sodas or consumed diet sodas because they were overweight.

That argument is less persuasive for the San Antonio Heart Study, because the weight gain associated with diet soda consumption was also seen with people who were at normal weight at the beginning of the study. Still there is a need for good double blind, placebo controlled intervention studies.

There have been very few intervention studies in which one group of subjects were told to drink only diet sodas and the other group only regular sodas. Unfortunately, in those studies the total caloric intake of the diet soda group was also restricted. So while the diet soda group did lose weight, it’s not clear whether that weight loss was due to the diet sodas or the overall caloric restriction of the diet.

You may have also seen the recent headlines from a study showing that people consuming diet sodas gained no more weight than people consuming water (Obesity, 22: 1415-1421, 2014). But once again, both groups were given detailed instructions on how to restrict total calories. Almost any diet will work if you have a dietitian looking over your shoulder and telling you how to restrict calories.

So what is the average consumer to think? On the one hand, dietitians and health professionals are telling you to drink diet sodas if you want to lose weight. On the other hand, you keep seeing these headlines saying the diet sodas may not help you lose weight or may even cause you to gain weight.

Of all the recent blogs and online articles on the topic, the only one I actually recommend reading is from WebMD (http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/diet-sodas-and-weight-gain-not-so-fast).

WebMD often adheres to the AMA line, but I found this to be a very balanced analysis of the science behind the question of whether diet sodas help or hinder weight loss.

How Could Diet Sodas Possibly Cause Weight Gain?

The million dollar question is: How could diet sodas possibly cause weight gain? After all, they contain no calories. I think the most useful perspective from the Web MD article is that it’s probably not the diet sodas themselves that cause weight gain. It’s what we eat with the diet sodas that cause the weight gain. Here are a couple of quotes I found particularly enlightening.

Dr. Barry Popkin, a colleague from the University of North Carolina, calls it the “Big Mac and Diet Coke” mentality. He says: “Especially in America, we have a lot of people who eat high-fat, high-sugar diets, but also drink diet sodas.”

Why is that? Dr. David Katz from Yale University has research suggesting that artificial sweeteners may condition people to want to eat more sweet foods. He says: “Our taste buds don’t really differentiate between sweet in sugar and sweet from, say, aspartame. The evidence that this sweet taste is addictive is pretty clear. What I have seen in my patients is that those who drink diet soda are more vulnerable to processed foods with added sugars.”

There is some independent evidence to back up that hypothesis. For example, one recent study showed that rats given artificially sweetened yoghurt with their rat chow ate more rat chow and gained more weight than rats fed sugar-sweetened yoghurt with their rat chow (Behavioral Neuroscience, 122: 161-173, 2008). Another study in humans showed that consumption of artificial sweeteners activates a portion of the brain associated with cravings for sweets (Physiology & Behavior, 107: 560-567, 2012).

However, this viewpoint is controversial. Some experts think that the association between diet sodas and weight gain is psychological rather than physiological. Simply put, when people consume diet drinks they feel that they can splurge elsewhere.

The Bottom Line

  • Once again there is no magic bullet. There is no good evidence that diet sodas will help you lose weight unless you carefully control the calories in everything else you eat. And, diet sodas may just cause you to gain weight because they make you crave the very foods that are worst for your waistline.
  • In addition, there may be other good reasons not to consume diet sodas. For example, recent studies have shown that consumption of diet sodas may be linked to increased risk of metabolic syndrome or pre-diabetes (Circulation, 116: 480-488, 2007) and heart disease (see Does Sugar Cause Heart Disease? and Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease?
  • My recommendations are to drink water, herbal teas, unsweetened tea & coffee or unsweetened mineral water or seltzer – perhaps with a splash of fruit juice.
  • Finally, there is no substitute for a healthy, calorie controlled diet; exercise; and lifestyle change if you want to lose weight and keep it off.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Does Sugar Cause Heart Disease?

Is Sugar No Longer Your Best Friend?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

SugarSugar has gotten a lot of bad press in recent years. You’ve probably already heard that high sugar intake is associated with inflammation, obesity and diabetes. As if that weren’t bad enough, the latest headlines proclaim that added sugar may also increase our risk of fatal heart disease. Are those headlines true? And if they are true, what should you do about it?

Sugar Basics – The Truth About Sugar

There are three facts about sugar that almost every expert agrees with:

  • The sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables are generally not a problem unless you are a diabetic. It is the added sugars in our diet that we should be concerned with.
  • The amount of added sugars in the American diet has increased dramatically since the founding of this country. Based on data from the US Department of Commerce and the USDA, the amount of added sugar in the American diet has gone from 6.3 pounds/year in 1822 to over 100 pounds/year in 2000. Put another way, we have gone from consuming the amount of sugar in a 12 oz soda every 5 days in 1822 to every 7 hours in 2000.
  • The lion’s share of that added sugar is coming from sodas and similar sugary beverages. The amounts are: sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages (37.1%), grain-based desserts (13.7%), fruit drinks (8.9%), dairy desserts (6.1%) and candy (5.8%).

Beyond that there is little agreement among experts. When I was a young man the sugar “villains” were glucose and sucrose. Then it was sugar alcohols. Today it is high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin. Tomorrow it will be something else.

In reality there are no sugar heroes and no sugar villains. The harmful effects of added sugars are based almost entirely on:

  • The amount of added sugars in the diet…and…
  • The type of foods those added sugars are found in.

For more information, watch my video “The Truth About Sugar”.

Does Sugar Cause Heart Disease?

The study behind the headlines (Yang et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, 174: 516-524, 2014) followed 11,733 participants in the 3rd National Health And Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) for an average of 14.6 years. (NHANES studies are designed to represent a cross section of the adult US population). Sugar intake was based on the average of two dietary surveys for most of the participants, and cardiovascular deaths were determined from the NHANES III Linked Mortality Files.

The average intake of added sugar in the American population was around 16% of total calories (compared to around 1% of total calories in 1822). For comparison purposes, the authors divided the population into three groups based on added sugar consumption:

  • Those consuming less than 10% of calories from added sugar (28.6% of the population).
  • Those consuming between 10% and 25% of calories from added sugars (46.4% of the population).
  • Those consuming more than 25% of calories from added sugars (25.0% of the population).

When the groups with the 10-25% and >25% of calories from added sugars were compared to the <10% group with respect to cardiovascular deaths, the results were pretty striking.

  • The group consuming 10-25% of calories from added sugars had a 30% increased risk of dying from heart disease
  • And the group consuming >25% of calories from added sugars had a 275% increased risk of dying from heart disease!

This association between added sugar consumption and risk of cardiovascular death was independent of age, sex, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, physical activity, HEI score (a measure of overall diet quality and BMI (a measure of obesity).

The Strengths And Weaknesses of This Study

Strengths:

  • This was a particularly large, well designed study.
  • This study is consistent with a number of early studies suggesting that added sugar intake increases the risk of cardiovascular death. See, for example “Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease?

Weaknesses:

  • The main weakness of this study is that it measures associations only. It does not prove cause and effect.

Should You Switch To Diet Sodas?

Diet SodaYou may be thinking that you should switch to diet sodas – and perhaps artificially sweetened snacks and desserts as well. It only makes sense that if sugar is the problem, artificial sweeteners must be the answer. Wrong! The latest research suggests that diet sodas may be just as bad as the sugar-sweetened sodas.

I have already shared one study with you that linked consumption of diet sodas with increased risk of heart disease (see “Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease?”). The link between diet sodas and heart disease has now been supported by another major clinical study reported by Dr. Ankur Vyas from University of Iowa, March 30, 2014 at the American College of Cardiology’s 63rd Annual Scientific Session.

This study followed 60,000 women with an average age of 62.8 years who were enrolled in the Woman’s Health Initiative Observational Study for 9 years. They reported that compared to women who never or rarely drank diet sodas, those who consumed two or more diet sodas/day were:

  • 30% more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes…and…
  • 50% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

What Can You Drink?

By now you are probably asking yourself: “If regular sodas, diet sodas, other sugary and diet beverages, and even most fruit juices are out, what else can I drink? Is there anything left?”

It’s not quite as daunting as it seems at first. It may take some time to re-educate your taste buds, but your health is worth it. Here are some healthy alternatives:

  • My #1 recommendation is always water. If you crave some flavor, add lemon, mint, or your favorite fruits. Herbal teas are another flavorful, healthy choice.
  • If you crave caffeine, go for green tea, regular tea or coffee – without sweeteners, of course.
  • If you crave the carbonation, start with unsweetened mineral water or seltzer and add you favorite flavorings.

The Bottom Line:

1)    The evidence is getting stronger every day that too much added sugar in our diet is linked to increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. If you are consuming >25% of calories from added sugars the increased risk is almost 3-fold!

2)    The evidence from this study suggests that it would be prudent to keep added sugars below 10% of calories. For most Americans this represents around 200 calories/day from added sugars. That compares with the World Health Organization’s recommendation that added sugars be <10% of calories, the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation that added sugars be <25% of calories, and the American Heart Association’s recommendation that added sugars be <100 calories for women and <150 calories for men.

3)    There are no sugar heroes and villains. The amount of added sugar in the diet is much more important than the kind of sugar. The food that the sugar is found in is also very important, with sodas and similar sugar-sweetened beverages being the worst offenders (See my video “The Truth About Sugar” for more information).

4)    Artificial sweeteners are not the solution. A recent study with postmenopausal women suggests that consumption of as few as two diet sodas a day increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 30% and cardiovascular death by 50%.

5)    Don’t despair. You won’t have to go thirsty. There are lots of healthy alternatives available (see above).

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease?

Put Down That Soda

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 soda-drink-300x181Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease? For today’s “Health Tip” I’m going to paraphrase a quote from your some of your favorite action flicks: “Put down that soda and back away and nobody gets hurt.”

You see, the news about soft drinks keeps getting worse and worse! You’ve probably already heard that soft drink consumption leads to weight gain, pre-diabetes and possibly even diabetes because calories in liquid form do not affect appetite to the same extent as calories in solid form.

Soft Drink Consumption increases the risk of heart attack and stroke in women:

As if that weren’t bad enough, three recent studies suggest that soft drinks consumption is also associated with increased risk of heart attacks and stroke.

The first study looked at sweetened beverage consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in women (Fung et al, Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 89: 1037-1042, 2009).

This study followed 88,520 women enrolled in the Nurses Health Study for 24 years. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (either sodas or non-carbonated sugar-sweetened beverages such as Hawaiian Punch, lemonade and other non-carbonated fruit drinks) was assessed from food-frequency questionnaires administered 7 times during the 24 years. And the total incidence of coronary events (both fatal and non-fatal) was recorded.

The results were striking. When they compared women who consumed as little as one sugar-sweetened beverage per day with women who consumed those beverages less than once per month, the increased risk of coronary heart disease was 23%. And when they compared women who consumed more than two sugar-sweetened beverage per day with women who consumed those beverages less than once per month, the increased risk of coronary heart disease was a whopping 35%.

Sodas are just as harmful for men:

And, in case you guys thought you were off the hook, a study has just been published showing similar results in men (de Koning et al, Circulation, March 12, 2012, Epub ahead of print). This study was a 22 year follow up of 42,883 men enrolled in the Men’s Health Professional study. The study design and results were very similar to the ones obtained previously in the Nurses Health Study except that this study did not distinguish between subjects consuming one sugar sweetened beverage a day and those consuming more than one each day.

When they compared men who consumed one or more sugar sweetened beverage a day to men who never consumed sugar-sweetened beverages, the increased risk of coronary heart disease was 20%.

Diet sodas are just as bad as regular sodas:

 Finally, you may be saying that this information doesn’t apply to you because you only consume diet sodas or artificially sweetened non-carbonated beverages.

Unfortunately, you may not be off the hook either!

Another study published in January 2012 reported that diet soft drink consumption is also associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease – including strokes (Gardener et al, J. Gen. Intern. Med., DOI: 10.1007/sl11606-011-1968-2). This study followed 2564 men and women enrolled in the Northern Manhattan Study for 10 years.

The people in this study who consumed more than one diet soda or artificially sweetened beverage/day were 43% more likely to have a vascular event (heart attack or stroke) then the people consuming less than one diet beverage/month. This study is in line with previous studies showing that diet soda consumption is associated with increased risk of pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

And, as I have pointed out in my previous “Health Tips”, there is no convincing evidence that diet sodas actually help prevent weight gain. Sure there are several published studies showing that when dietitians supervise the diets of the study participants, you can achieve weight loss by substituting diet beverages for sugar containing beverages.

However, two major studies have shown that when you look at free-living populations, consumption of diet beverages is associated with just as much weight gain as consumption of sugar containing beverages (Dhingra et al, Circulation,116: 480-488, 2007; Fowler et al,

Obesity, 16:1894-1900, 2008). Apparently, without a dietitian looking over our shoulder, we manage to make up for those lost calories somewhere else!

The Bottom Line:

So what’s the bottom line for you?

You should be aware that these studies just look at associations – not cause and effect – and they can be skewed by the characteristics of the study populations. For example, there were some striking inconsistencies between the 3 studies I cited that are likely due to differences in the population groups that they sampled. However, despite some differences from one study to the next, the weight of accumulating evidence seems to suggest that sodas – both sugar containing and diet – are really not good for us.

So it’s back to my original advice: “Just put down that soda and nobody gets hurt.” Water is sounding better and better!

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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